Friday, June 29, 2012

Blistered but Not Busted

When we left off on Wednesday, New Westminster was on fire but help had arrived and citizens and fire fighters alike were working to put out the blaze. The next day, Monday, September 12, 1898, residents woke to find the flames extinguished but the ravages of the fire were everywhere. Sidewalks were gone, replaced by paths of greyish brown dust. It looked like the marks left by a carpet rolled up after sitting in place for a long time.

This fire was the worst in British Columbia history to date. The Vancouver fire of 1886 was sudden and violent yet the wooden buildings there were a lot smaller and the community quickly rebuilt. Granted, there were more losses of life in the earlier fire – the only recorded death in the New Westminster fire was a Chinese merchant who died of a heart attack and there were at least thirty fatalities in Vancouver – but the structures lost in New Westminster were more extensive.

All the major hotels, every church but one, the CPR station, the city hall, the court house, the offices of the Daily Columbian, two canneries – one of which had a whole season’s pack – a warehouse full of coal and another full of feed for livestock were just some of the property casualties of the fire. Add to that list the public library, two fire halls, the opera house, two banks and the post office. As well, the fire devoured many businesses firms and private residences. Three hundred in all! And to make matter worse, few people carried fire insurance.

Other important items lost include maps of the Fraser River that were being prepared to prevent any replay of the great flood of 1894. Relics associated with Captain George Vancouver and Sir John Franklin vanished. Another loss of the fire was $20,000 worth of opium. (At that time, it was legally available for sale in British Columbia.)
Mayor Ovens sent a wire to Premier Semlin in Victoria asking for help. And assistance was quickly delivered. The premier ordered tents and blankets seen immediately. James Dunsmuir, a coal baron, had a special trainload of relief supplies sent north from Victoria to Nanaimo then put on his company’s steamer, Joan. Joan waited to cast off for New Westminster as soon as she was loaded.

Several high government officials rushed to the stricken city. Relief committees were set up in Victoria and Vancouver to raise supplies and money for the victims of the fire. What had once been the centre of a thriving city was now 20 acres of ash. Over a thousand people were now homeless and had spent one or two nights sleeping in blankets under the stars. These people now lived in tents or resided with families in homes that had escaped the wrath of the fire.

The city began to return to live quickly. Hope had survived the fire. Makeshift shacks appeared in the city hall square and merchants offered new stock to the impoverished citizens.  A 12 x 10 tent now represented city hall.

The CPR had donated $5,000, James Dunsmuir $3,000 and this helped the recovery begin. The dominion government announced it would rebuild its buildings in the city. The opened vaults of the banks of British Columbia and Montreal reveal that the contents were still intact. As well, the great exposition scheduled for the next month was not cancelled even if visitors had to finding lodgings in Vancouver.

Not everyone was nice though. Walter Nichol who was editor of the Vancouver Province and later became Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia, wrote soon after the fire that New Westminster was a city of yesterday and that its dreams of greatness had been scattered to the heavens. He also stated that the citizens should now move to Vancouver. A group of New Westminster citizens weren’t that happy with his editorial and made their way to the offices of the Province, burst in and the leader proceeded to beat up Nichol.

I have written on Walter Nichol before. Go here if you would like to read more about him.

New Westminster was far from over. Once shopkeeper advertised that, he was ‘blistered but not broken’ a few days after the fire. As well, New Westminster’s tragedy led to improvements in how communities handled fire and improved the province’s emergency services

Last week, when I wrote on the Great Fire of 1886 in Vancouver, I commented that I wish people nowadays would show the same determination and willingness to make things work as they had in times of strife like this. A reader of the Stanley Cup riots reminded me that last year when a group of losers damaged the downtown area, there were many citizens who showed up the next morning to help clean up the mess.  I guess we aren’t lost after all.

Thanks goes again to Derek Pethick and his book British Columbia Disasters for supplying the information. There are some interesting facts and accounts from survivors in his book so, if you can find it, it makes a good read.

I hope you find the beauty around you.

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